Battle For God (Book Review)

(Written October 7, 2005) Battle for God - A History of Fundamentalism (Amazon Link) is the title of a book by Karen Armstrong that I just read. I found it deeply disturbing, if only for the implications for the future. It is not an easy read, mainly because it is densely packed with history. Especially in the earlier years (the time line starts in the 1400’s) there are many unfamiliar (to me) characters and events - I had the sense at times that what was covered in one paragraph could have been the topic for a book by itself. But even without being able to keep all of the players and events straight the book still successfully conveyed the ever-changing theological interpretations, splits and power struggles within and between religions.

While acknowledging that all religious faiths have fundamentalist movements, Armstrong selects only four for her in-depth history: Jews (Israel), Sunni (Egypt) and Shii (Iran) Muslims, and Protestant (American) Christians. One point she makes is that the “fundamentalist” movements are themselves products of the modern age, with uniquely modern approaches to religion. And although the ways in which each religion manifests fundamentalist behavior are quite different, there is a common thread through all of them:

“They are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself. Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil. They fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices from the past. To avoid contamination, they often withdraw from mainstream culture to create a counterculture; yet fundamentalists are not impractical dreamers. They have absorbed the pragmatic rationalism of modernity, and under the guidance of their charismatic leaders, they refine these ‘fundamentals’ so as to create an ideology that provides the faithful with a plan of action. Eventually they fight back and attempt to resacralize an increasingly skeptical world. (p xiii)”

Throughout the book she refers to the concepts of mythos and logos, which are both essential. She makes the point that in the past people saw things in terms of both, which were effective in different realms in our lives.

“Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning… Mythos provided … context; it directed attention to the eternal and universal. It was also rooted in what we would call the unconscious mind. The various mythological stories, which were not intended to be taken literally, were an ancient form of psychology.” (p xv)

“Logos was equally important. Logos was the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world…. Unlike myth, logos must relate exactly to facts and correspond to external realities … to be effective…. We use this logical, discursive reasoning to make things happen…. Logos is practical, unlike myth, which looks back to the beginnings and foundations, logos forges ahead and tries to find something new.” (p xvii)

In the modern world we have mostly left mythos behind and operate almost entirely in logos. But,
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On The Other Side

(Written August 7, 2005) During the past school year we had some students living next door. Several months ago they were having a party for a friend who was home on leave from Afghanistan (serving with the Army). I told them I would like to meet the guy.

One of the guys and ‘Tony’ came over for a short visit. We popped open a few beers and talked for about a half hour. I don’t really recall many of the details of what we talked about - M-this’s and L- that’s and Things That Go Bang (day or night). Long hours on duty, bad food, raunchy living conditions - standard military topics. Instead I found myself stepping back from the conversation and observing in fascination.

He was sitting there with his foot tapping, full of nervous energy, talking nearly non-stop. And yet he wasn’t really talking to us - it was all stuff he had said many times before and would likely say many times again - a steady string of words with no real meaning. I’m sure it had become a pretty well practiced, automatic response - push the Defense Button and the words come out and the wall goes up and nobody can get within a million miles of you.

But what really caught my attention, in a lightning bright flash of realization, was that I was seeing myself nearly 40 years ago. Just like someone had held up a great shiny mirror. In all these years I had never seen myself then so clearly.

I guess a good part of the reason I had never seen this before was that I had only ever been around other Nam vets (and earlier) before. And with almost any Nam vet, once they learn that you are a fellow Nam vet, many of the walls go down and you are “brother”. So I guess I sort of expected that to happen with Tony, and it was a surprise to find myself on the other side of the wall with everyone else. And I think it was finding myself on the “outside” that made it suddenly clear to me.

There’s a line by King - one of my favorite characters in “Platoon” - where he is telling Taylor “all you have to do is make it out of here alive. Every day the rest of your life will be gravy compared to this”. And that is how it seems over there, but the sad truth for many is it does not turn out that way. Even those who did not face combat have still been in a very life changing experience. The “World” you were dreaming of the whole time over there no longer exists when you return. It does, but you are looking at it through an impenetrable invisible wall.

For example, you run into an old friend and the conversation goes something like this:

“Hey, haven’t seen you around in awhile - what you been up to?”

“I just got back from [fill in name of war]”.

“Oh…. uh, sounds rough. So, you hear about what [fill in name] did? [fill in some trivial bs about some meaningless event or long lengthy complaints about nothing-at-all]”

Or even worse: “Wow - so did you kill anybody?”

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Way Back Phone Call

(Written February 12, 2005) Over a year ago I got a Christmas card from a guy I’ve known for an awful long time, with a simple “give me a call sometime” message scribbled in it. I kept intending to do so all year, and this year I got another card from him with a similar message. I had never gotten around to sending him a card either year, so it was definitely on me.

“Tom” is one of only two people alive today who I can claim to have known for over 50 years (the other is my mother). I grew up in rural Maryland in an old house surrounded by fields, a stream, woods on all sides, and many animals. My father disappeared before I was born, and my early years were spent with my mother and her parents. I was a wild little nature kid, digging in the stream, building “forts” in the woods and harassing the ducks/chickens/dogs/cats/etc. I think there were only a very few times I even met another kid my own age until First Grade - up till then I played by myself and knew mostly only my immediate family.

First Grade was both a scary and exciting adventure, and “Tom” lived close enough that we were at the same school bus stop. Somehow, from his infinitely lofty and cool Third Grade pinnacle he deigned to show my beneath-contempt First Grade self the ropes of riding the bus, finding my Home Room, and so on - and become my first “friend”.

Being one of the few kids who was within walking distance, we hung out a lot together. My mother married again when I was 12 and we moved to the City (Arlington), but I still spent many weekends with my grandmother at the old Home Place, and with Tom. Although that was not the name I usually called him by.
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Honey Bee Queens

(written Jan 7, 2005) With the warm start to the new year I finally got around to removing the mite strips from the hives on January 1st (should have been done a month or two ago). I had been reading in the bee magazines about how heavy mite losses (that is, bees lost to mites) were expected this winter. A beekeeping friend in PA - after bragging how much honey he had gotten this summer, and how he hadn’t treated his hives for mites in 5 years - wrote in his Christmas card that his hive was dead by November. So I was happy to find that all the hives under my care (4 of my own, and 3 for a neighbor lady) were all doing well. What was really surprising to me was that in 4 of the 7 hives the queens had already started laying eggs again. According to Conventional Wisdom, that does not start until late January, although I’m sure there is a wide range of regional differences.

Fall is the preferred re-queening time, with a healthy young queen to over winter. Supposedly it also helps reduce swarming in the spring, although the bees generally seem to have their own minds on that one. I have been experimenting with different breeds of bees with two considerations in mind: mites, and gentleness (considering the hives are being kept in a residential area). The normal yellow/orange/banded honey bee most often seen is the “Italian” breed. Reasonably docile, although the individual genetics and other factors can range from extremely gentle to Don’t Mess With That Hive. Other bees are better known for gentleness, although most of them are not as good at honey production. I’ve tried “Caucasian” bees before, and this year I decided to try “New World Carniolans” - brown bees described as mite resistant and very gentle, although they supposedly like to swarm.

Generally, the feistier a hive is, the less likely it is to accept a new queen, especially one of a different breed. So I started out by introducing my new queens into small “nucleus” colonies, which were less likely to have an attitude about new things. After being accepted there, I moved those nucs, intact, into sections of the full hives, separated by newspaper. That way the queen is with established friendly bees, and it takes awhile for the bees to eat through the newspaper, by which time they should all be friends. The tricky part of all that is finding and removing the old queen first. Of course, the feistier the hive, the harder she can be to find. Sometimes you just have to work in the middle of an angry bee cloud, and hope you didn’t leave any openings in your suit…
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Recondo Reunion

(Written May 2, 2004) I’ve not paid much attention to veteran’s stuff. In fact I had never even read a Viet Nam book until a guy in grad school called me a “boonie rat” - a term I hadn’t heard for a long time. I learned he had gotten it from a book he was reading, which became the first of many that I eventually read. I finally got around to joining a vet group for my unit maybe 15 years ago, mainly to get the newsletter and membership list, and have very sporadically made contact with a couple of guys over the years. But mostly I figured I had “moved on”. Vet groups were fine for those who had not been able to move on and needed the support - but what did that have to do with me.

Scanning my old photos and wanting to share them became part of what got me to more actively looking up some of the guys. When I got the announcement, last fall, for the reunion of my Recondo platoon - it got my attention. That was probably the best chance I would ever have for seeing some of the guys I had been with. Even so I almost blew it off. But, because of the photos, I had been in recent contact, and I knew at least two or three of the guys would be there. And Jean really encouraged me to check it out. I’ve got so many things I want to do with my time - but OK, it’s only a weekend - it might even be fun.

I knew for sure the guy I wrote about earlier (he helped me do some remodeling this past fall) - Tom “Beetle” Bailey - was going.

I had recently (a few years ago) made contact with another guy in my squad, Terry “Dirtball” Stanosheck. In retrospect, I have no idea how he was any more of a “dirtball” than the rest of us - we were all filthy. And I’m sure he stood in the rain and took Bayonet Baths (scraping off the dirt with the edge on a bayonet) as often as the rest of us. But somehow, at that age, you get a name and it sticks. He carried the machine gun, although on days when he was not in the field, or not able, I would carry it (I didn’t care for the extra weight, but I liked its reliability - something the M16 didn’t have). The guy I “found” a few years ago impressed me from our first conversation on the phone. His wife was in the terminal stages of a fatal disease, and he was caring for her at home. There was no self-pity on his part, nor would he accept any from anyone else, although it was clear that what he was doing was extremely difficult. He faced it with a sort of matter-of-fact calm serenity that I’m sure was tested anew every day. One conversation we were having ended abruptly when he heard her calling him and he had to go help her. She died within the last year or so, and he was starting to find his own life again. He said he was definitely coming and I was really looking forward to meeting who this guy had become.
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The Beatles (Looking back 40 years)

(Written January 23, 2004) I was in high school when the Beatles hit the US. On January first I was listening to the countdown of the hits of the previous year - on AM radio. I guess a few FM stations were broadcasting, but it was sort of like satellite radio is now - not many people had access to it. New cars only came with AM radios in them. In fact, it was not that long before (less than 10 years) that transistor radios had come out. Now this was a big deal - it didn’t have vacuum tubes, so you could actually carry it around with you and run it off of batteries! The really hot models had more than one actual transistor in them, but even those were not something you could fit into a shirt pocket. I begged and pleaded until my parents finally bought me one of those expensive things - and I went about everywhere carrying it next to my ear.


Anyhow, here it was the first day of the New Year (1964), and the DJ comes on and says that they predict the next song will be the number one hit for the year coming. I had never heard the song before, so I thought that was a pretty bold statement, but as it turned out I’m pretty sure they were right. It was “I want to hold your hand”.

About a month later the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan and “Beatlemania” hit the US. There was a lot of attention paid to their “long hair” back then - and indeed, at the time, it did seem very long. Standards for a haircut back then were if a single hair was even close to touching an ear - you were in bad need of a haircut. I bought a Beatles wig as a gag to wear to high school, and I don’t believe there was any hair on it more than 2 inches long…

There was a lot more of a common culture back then, which I’m not sure is a good thing or a bad thing - probably some of both. No internet, 3 TV broadcast channels (if you were lucky enough to live somewhere that you could pick up all 3 of them) and only AM radio, which only had a few choices for music: Top 40 or Country & Western. In the big cities you could probably find a station that played Classical music or maybe even jazz, but not many choices. But it meant nearly everyone was aware of the same things and had the same reference points. Like, if you were watching late night TV on Saturday night - well it was almost certainly “Saturday Night Live”. And most everyone knew the same music.

And if you saw a wild animal outside of the cave, it was almost surely a dinosaur…
(Image above from,_Kennedy_Airport,_February_1964.jpg )

Paths Not Taken - part 2

(Written November 21, 2003) A little while ago I wrote about hearing that a guy I had known in high school, “Tom”, had died. I got that news during a phone call about getting together for a visit with a couple of other friends from the Old Days. For the sake of their privacy, I’m just going to call them “John” and “Scott”.

I met “John” during my last days in the Army - he was a small time drug dealer at the time and had just gotten married. We became close friends and I ended up living with he and his wife for about 3 or 4 years - sometimes there were just the 3 of us, sometimes the number grew to 7 or 8. I met Scott through John. At the time he was vice president of the local chapter of the Pagans motorcycle club/gang. For obvious reasons, much about those days is best left unsaid.

But nothing is ever as simple as it seems at first. John was a long-haired, motorcycle riding drug dealer - and a Republican with solidly conservative views on most things. Looking back on this period from years later I credit him with saving me from myself. If I had been a loose cannon going into the Army, I was even more of one after returning from Viet Nam. I was pretty wild with very little sense of direction, most of which was heavily influenced by those around me. I could have very easily fallen in with a group like the SLA or Weather Underground or some such, and really made a mess of my life. As wild as we were, there was one side of John that was practical and solidly rooted in basic values. He pulled me back from the brink a number of times. Today he owns his own painting/finishing business and he and his wife have been married for over 35 years. They have a daughter who is a Green Party activist and their son has made them grand parents twice over.

Scott has always been what I would call a “seeker”. He eventually drifted away from active membership in the Pagans. The next major stage of his journey involved moving to West Virginia and becoming a Fire Breathing, Bible Thumping Born Again. That lasted for awhile, but, as he later confessed, he finally recalled what it was he hadn’t liked about going to church. I’ve lost track of all the things he’s tried, although I recall he worked for a newspaper for awhile and also tried his hand at gold and silver trading. The parade of women through his life seemed to be a steady stream, and I don’t even remember most of them. About 20 years ago he finally found his career - he owns a porta-potty business and seems to be doing quite well at it, having as he says, “made a shit pot full of money” in the business.

Anyhow, a few days ago John had flown into the DC area to take care of some family business and the 3 of us got together for an afternoon. We ended up at Scott’s house for a little while and started out in his shed, which was loaded with Harleys and Harley parts. Since both he and Tom had been Pagans they had kept in contact, and it was through Scott that I finally learned the details of how Tom died. I don’t know what I had expected - maybe a motorcycle crash, cancer, getting shot, or just poor health. The last I had seen Tom, at that high school reunion back in the 80’s, he had seemed pretty normal - probably a bit of a “Harley gut” but no more. So I definitely was not ready for what I heard. Scott said Tom at some point “just gave up” and sat down in front of the TV drinking beer. He died of a heart attack at a weight of 400 pounds. Geeez. Suicide by Budweiser. It seems like anything would have been better than that… Tom’s last Harley was in baskets in Scott’s shed - it had been awhile since he had been light enough to ride.
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Paths Not Taken

(Written November 10, 2003) Be advised that what follows are the arm chair ramblings of an Old Fart, which may or may not have a point. If you consider such to be a waste of time you can stop now.

This weekend I was talking with a friend from the Old Days, and one bit of news he had was that a guy I had known in high school, “Tom”, had died - although he had no further information. In the time when I was in high school, although it was the early 60’s, the “60’s” had not yet begun. The Beatles were still a brand new band, and no one male even thought about wearing long hair. There were two social groups in high school, the Surfers/Collegians and the Greasers. I hung with the Greasers, whose main point seemed to be impressing the world with the fact that they were Bad Asses. I guess I was never really more than a BA wannabe - I did get in little bits of trouble here and there, but nothing ever serious enough to get expelled or locked up for. No so with Tom, who was the genuine article. He hung with all the baddest guys, got arrested and locked up on a regular basis, and never did finish high school because he was finally permanently expelled. I was actually pretty proud of the fact that he and I socialized in the Industrial Ed classes (for those learning a “trade”, without expectations of college in their future) - it was like just hanging out with the guy gave me some BA credentials.

I “graduated” from HS with a 1.8 GPA, which is better than what Tom did. At about 17 or so he got a girl pregnant and via a shot gun wedding he became the first of the Class of 1965 to get married, although it may not yet have been 1965. He also got expelled for whatever reason before graduation.

After high school I was pretty much a loose cannon, working jobs I didn’t much care for and doing my best to get into serious trouble. Viet Nam was just starting up in earnest and I figured nothing would burnish my BA credentials like being a Returning Combat Veteran (ahhh, the “logic” of youth…) So into the Army I went, near the end of 65. A couple of months later, while home on leave from Basic Training, I was sitting on a friend’s porch one evening and heard lots of gun fire erupting very nearby. Turns out it was a “fire fight” between two rival motorcycle gangs, the Pagans and the Avengers. This was right in Arlington Virginia and created a hell of a lot of noise, although they must have been lousy shots because I don’t think anyone was actually hit.
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New View (out of the office window)

(Written October 10, 2003) The little company gets bought by the bigger company, which is in turn gobbled up by an even bigger one. Same job, same place, but there have been 3 different company names in the 7 years I’ve been there. Now we are no longer even in the same location. Many of us former smaller companies, at different locations, have been “consolidated” into a single location. Unfortunately, the old location was Crystal City (bad enough), but now we are in a brand new office building in South East DC (next to the Navy Yard). So I’ve given up driving to work (parking at $300+ month plus the uncertainties of the 14th St bridge bottleneck) and am learning about the Metro life style. At least I’m getting caught up on some of my reading during the commute now, so it is not all bad.


A good point of the move however, was a totally unexpected one - the view out of my window. I can see the Southwest freeway about 3 or 4 blocks away, and there is a good view of the Capitol right behind that, along with some other large government buildings that I haven’t identified yet. But the good part is that I have a small field of green and trees immediately outside my window. It is a nearly vacant block with only a single building on one corner - the “Star Market - Groceries, cold beer and wine”. I’ll let you guess how many “groceries” they sell. Bars on all the windows, and the actual store area inside is about the size of a large closet, with the cashier sitting behind bullet-proof glass. You can buy potato chips and the like there, so I guess those do count as “groceries”.


But the rest of the block is a little patch of overgrown nature - right there in the midst of the concrete jungle. There is trash in it, of course, but most of that is hidden by the green stuff. There is also a regular crew of nature lovers that inhabit this “park”. It appears they have a well worn path to the center of the lot where they are completely hidden from view by anyone on the street. But I guess they haven’t yet gotten used to the idea that there are people in that big new building next to their park.

One of my co-workers brought in a pair of binoculars, and it has been educational. Any appreciation of nature is apparently enhanced with the favorite recreational substance of choice. They come and go all day with their crack pipes and needles. And lest you make any unwarranted racial assumptions, this is a racially diverse group who seem to be quite the model for inter-racial harmony.
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